Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Kingdoms Fall

Week 17: The Story

One of the true blessings that I’ve seen happening to our church since we started reading through The Story, is that we are getting a breadth of Scripture, and a more complete picture of the story of salvation, than we would if all my sermons were from the New Testament

To be honest, that are parts of the Old Testament that are hard to preach from.
And the readings from this week, take us to a very dark time in the history of God’s people.

Lamentations, one of our readings for this week, is one of the darkest books that we find in the Bible.  I found only   one passage from Lamentations, in our 3 year cycle of Scripture readings.
And you’ve probably never heard a sermon based on Lamentations.

But it’s an important part of God’s story.
Listen to Jeremiah during the period of the Babylonian exile
writing in Lamentations, chapter 3:
I am the man who has seen affliction
    by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.
He has driven me away and made me walk
    in darkness rather than light;
indeed, he has turned his hand against me
    again and again, all day long.

Even when I call out or cry for help,
    he shuts out my prayer.

15 He has filled me with bitter herbs
    and given me gall to drink.

17 I have been deprived of peace;
    I have forgotten what prosperity is.
18 So I say, “My splendor is gone
    and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”
19 I remember my affliction and my wandering,
    the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
    and my soul is downcast within me.

For us to be People of the Bible, two things are necessary.
The first is to know the biblical story. The second is to recognize that story as our own.
The Book of Lamentations is a tiny part of the Bible
but it is the hinge on which this part of God’s story turns.
It can also represent a hinge in own lives as well.

Although the book is short it took a long time to write.
Listen to the story of the writing Lamentations and see how represents our story as well.
The book began to be written in Abraham’s time, some two thousand years before the birth of Jesus.

When God called Abraham into service he gave the patriarch two things:
a purpose; he was to be a blessing to the world
and a hope; and that hope was for a special life-giving relationship with God.

With those two promises Abraham set off on the spiritual journey we continue today.
He set off into Canaan and his descendants continued into Egypt where they eventually became slaves.

Then God gave them the great experience of escape and new life we call the Exodus.
It was an experience of hope that speaks to us even today.

God also gave them the Law, God’s path that leads to life.
When they followed that path, they fulfilled God’s purpose by being a blessing to others.

But then they got hope and purpose mixed up.
And they put their desires ahead of their calling.
They put what they wanted from life ahead of God’s purpose

The symbolic moment of this confusion was their desire for a earthly king,
instead of following God, who is the one true king.

But God allowed it, and their kings held the title “Anointed One” or Messiah.

They were sure that God would take care of them
because of the special relationship promised to Abraham and his descendants.

While their hopes were clear, their purpose became murky.

God sent them warnings in the form of prophets
And the prophets had essentially one message: They said, “You are getting it backwards.”

Purpose precedes hope.
because what we hope for is only found by fulfilling our purpose.
Our purpose is to allow God to use us to be a blessing.
But the people of Israel and Judah, got that backwards.

They kept on doing whatever they thought was right, in their own eyes.
They didn’t listen to the prophets.
They kept expecting that God would take care of them no matter what they did.

The focal point of that expectation was Jerusalem.
Surely God would not let anything happen to the Holy City!

But in 587 BC something did happen.
Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and the Book of Lamentations that had been taking shape
since the call for a king was finally put on paper.

Lamentations is the biblical equivalent of rock bottom, the realization that things have gone terribly wrong.

It takes a long time to get to rock bottom.
It takes a long time to write the book of Lamentations, for the people of Israel and for us.

The Bible’s story is our story as well.

Every birth and every marriage, even the life of this Community Lutheran church
is enfolded by God’s purpose and hope.
Just like purpose and hope God gave to Abraham.

And just like the God’s people in the Old Testament,
we find it hard to keep those two gifts in proper sequence.
We, also tend to let hope precede purpose.
We let what we desire in life, take precedence over what God expects of us.

And God sends us prophets.  
God send us words of warning that we find difficult to hear.
Individuals who have dealt with addiction are surrounded by signs indicating that the path they are on does not go where they want to be.

And not just addictions, but our own sin carries other warnings: headaches, inability to sleep
guilt that nags us, white lies that become more than white lies;
excuses, and rationalizations these are all prophetic signs

Are we writing our own Book of Lamentations and if so how far along are we?
It takes a long time to write a Book of Lamentations.

Jeremiah faithfully delivered these warnings to Judah.
But they squandered their one last chance.
The Bible sums up this entire period in which God allowed his people to put their hopes for a king, ahead of their purpose in this passage:

The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy.”

When you get to the place where the God of the universe says “No remedy” you know it’s over. And it was for Judah.

Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, breaks through the walls of Jerusalem,
and burns the whole city, including the Temple, to the ground.

From our Lower Story perspective, the destruction of Jerusalem seems harsh and unnecessary.
If you love your people so much, why treat them this way?

But in the Upper Story, this is precisely why God had to act as he did:
he loves them that much. 

If God continued to bless Judah while they rejected Him and His purpose,
what kind of love would that be?

Instead God is trying to implant a vision of a new kingdom,
not a kingdom of earthly kings and their selfish desires,
but the kingdom of a coming Messiah who would restore God’s people
to its true hope and purpose.

The entire point of God’s judgment of Judah
was to get their attention and remind them of his promise.
A king would come from their tribe, and God was preparing them for that day.

Through Ezekiel, God said,

24 “‘For I will take you out of the nations;
 I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 

26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you;
I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. 

Can you imagine how these words sounded to the people of Judah?
hearing them when they were living in exile in Babylon
at the point when they were hitting rock bottom
crying out in lamentation?

Can you imagine how these words sound to people today
who have mixed up God’s purposes for their lives?
when we realize that we are writing a book of Lamentations,
and cry out to God for rescue…

For those times, when you and I have turned our backs on God… 
and we hear his voice calling us home…
listen to these words of hope declared by Jeremiah
and let them be the hinge that swings your life back to God:

21 Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.

23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.”[1]                         Amen.

This sermon was inspired by Rev. Francis H. Wade

[1] Lamentations 3:21-24

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Beginning of the End (of Israel’s Kingdom)

Week 16: The Story

What if you were interviewing for a job and it was a job you really wanted,
and they asked you “Who are you?” what would you say? How would you identify yourself?
What would you talk about?

The way we identify ourselves has a lot to do with where we put our confidence…where we put our faith and trust.  And if we misplace our faith and our trust, then we end up placing our confidence in things that are false things that will never come through for us.

Today at noon, I meet with our Confirmation class, and we’re going to start off by reviewing the major themes in the Old Testament, everything we've covered so far in The Story.
And one of the things we see over and over again, is a theme that is foundational for all people at all times.

And that theme is faith.
In your life and mine, it makes all the difference in the world, what we put our faith in.

This Sunday, we meet King Hezekiah, and the prophet Isaiah, and they remind us of these questions:  “Who are you?”  and “Where do you put your confidence and your trust?”

Hezekiah, is a name from the Old Testament that most people aren’t familiar with.
It’s not a name like Abraham, or Moses, or David.
But Hezekiah’s story deserves some attention.

What had been one united kingdom under David and Solomon
was now divided in two; Israel to the north, and Judah to the south: ten tribes to the north and two to the south

As I mentioned last week, over a 208 year period, there were 38 kings who ruled Israel and Judah, and only five of them were faithful to God,  and the rest were evil.
They did whatever they thought was right in their own eyes.

Israel grows so weak, that they fall,  in 722 B.C.  to the Assyrian Empire.
Assyria was the big bully in the neighborhood to the NE, and within 100 years the Babylonian empire gains strength to the SE of Assyria.
And of course there is Egypt, to contend with in the SW.

So by the time Hezekiah comes along, Judah is surrounded and they don’t have Israel as a buffer to the north anymore.  And out of the people living in Judah, only a few are still faithful to God, but Hezekiah is one.

He ascends to the thrown as a young man.  He’s only twenty-five years old
and he starts this massive excavation project.

In 2 Kings, chapter 18 we find out what Hezekiah did.
Let’s read it together:  “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord…he removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles.”

He took down the high places, which were shrines to false gods like Baal and Asherah.
The sacred stones were used for practicing witchcraft and sorcery, which shows where they were putting their confidence and their trust.

Instead of trusting God, for the harvest, and for blessing their families
they were making alliances with other gods.

Just like Adam and Eve, they were wanted to control their own lives through these things that they could touch and see.  Instead of trusting in the Lord, with their whole heart, they had abandoned God.

And so young King Hezekiah comes along, to challenge their idolatry.
Because he is a man of faith, not perfect, but because he is a man of faith, he starts to tear down these shrines.

In our own lives, we each have things that we are tempted to put in a higher place than God.
Sometimes it’s one of the gifts God has given us, like our own intellect. 
Do you know how many people have a hard time trusting God because somebody has sold them the lie, that faith and reason are incompatible?

Other people have other God-given talents, talents in athletics or the arts, and instead of seeing those gifts as platform for serving God, they let their own pride get in the way and they end up putting those gifts in the highest place.

Some people are very successful at making money with their gift but instead of being thankful, they get caught up in the trappings of possessions and the pride that goes with that.

But God says, don’t let anything else take my place.

Hezekiah remembered that.  And so he had wild confidence that was grounded in faith.
Though the world’s eyes, he had no reason for that kind of confidence.

Sennacherib, is the king of Assyria.  
He’s an emperor. He has immense power. He’s conquered a huge swath of the Middle East and everyone bows down to him. On the way down to Judah, he’s conquered Israel and dragged
them off into exile. He’s got power to move the world around.
And Judah’s next.
So he knocks on their door with a threat.
And his messengers tell Hezekiah, “bow down, don’t resist. If you want to end up like Israel to the north, go ahead and fight us, but if you want to be smart,  negotiate with us, and become Assyrian, and join our armies, and reject your God.”

Hezekiah said “no”.

“Where does your confidence come from?” the messengers said to Hezekiah.

“Are you confident because you have an alliance with Egypt, because they are going down too.
They’re next.”

“Is your confidence in your God? The God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob.

“Well, if you haven’t gotten the message, your friends to the north we wiped them out.
Didn't they worship your God, too?”
Why do you put your faith in a god, we’re the Assyrian empire
We are the power in this world.  We are the highest place.”

And so Isaiah comes on the scene.
God calls Isaiah to be a prophet and Isaiah brings the word of the Lord to Hezekiah:

“Don’t be afraid of these people, they’re not going to defeat you
 in fact, they’re going to run away.”

And that’s exactly what happened.

You see God is bigger than all of those things we’re tempted to put in a higher place

So let’s just think this through logically.

If God is bigger, and more powerful, and holy, and almighty
than anything else in this world that I can put my faith in,
why would I put anything else in the highest place?

Why would I ignore God, and put my trust, and my hope and my confidence in anything less?
 than the one who created me and this whole world? Does that make any sense?

That we would put our faith in anything less, than the God who meets us in the lowest places, but resides in the highest places?

Which is why Isaiah addressed the messengers from the Assyrian King and said, “Against whom have you raised your voice and lifted your eyes in pride?
Who do you think you are?”
“Let me remind you who I am.   I’m the God who created you.
I’m the God who put breath into your lungs.
I’m the giver of life and every blessing.  Remember that.

Because as soon as you step outside the boundaries I have given for your protection.
You will surely experience death.  And that’s not just a message for the Assyrian king.

There is a passage in Romans, that’s addressed to us.  It’s a prophetic word of warning to anyone who would disregard God and God’s wisdom for our lives.

In chapter one, Paul writes:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 
since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.[1]

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God (they didn't give God the highest place) nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity … 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. 
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice.

They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.

And then Paul concludes:

Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.[2]

But the story doesn’t end there.

Yes, we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Yes, we are deserving of death.

But as we heard so poignantly this week from Isaiah,
God had another plan.   A plan that would be revealed in God’s time.

Who has believed what we have heard?
    And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
    and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
    a man of suffering[a] and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities
    and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
    struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
    and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

Thank God that Jesus our Messiah has come
and has delivered us and saved us from our sins.

That'is where our true confidence comes from.

God, so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son,
so that whoever believes in Him, whoever puts their confidence in him,
will not perish, but will experience eternal life; now and forever.  Amen.

[1] Romans 1:18-20
[2] Romans 1: 21-25,28-32

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Kingdom Torn in Two

The Story: Week 14

Have you ever heard the quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”?[1]  I googled that quote this week and I found a few other good ones.
“History, with all her volumes vast, hath but one page”[2]
“History doesn't repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.”[3] 

And with the history of Israel’s kings in mind, listen to this one:
“Disregard for the past will do no good. Without it we cannot know truly who we are.”[4] 

As Solomon approaches the end of his reign over Jerusalem, two new characters enter the scene — Jeroboam and Rehoboam – Jerry and Ray, if you prefer.
At this particular point in our story, you'll recall that God was using the nation of Israel to reveal his character to the rest of the world so that Israel would be a blessing to all nations.

When they all got along well and prospered, foreign nations caught a glimpse of what it would be like to be part of God's family.
But when they turned their backs on God and lived selfishly, God disciplined them because God needed Israel to accurately reflect who he was and the kind of community he was building.

And as we read Chapter 14, you see that God's reflection was becoming distorted
which meant Israel was about to be disciplined, and it started with Jeroboam, one of Solomon's officials.

After Solomon died, his son Rehoboam became king.  Apparently, Solomon accumulated much of his wealth the old-fashioned way –  high taxes and forced labor.  So the people rise up, and Jeroboam and a huge crowd went to Rehoboam and asked for relief.

King Rehoboam foreshadowing King George of England, threatened to make conditions even worse.  And so Jeroboam and his many followers left.  They retreated to their tribal regions in the north and made Jeroboam king over all of Israel since they represented ten of the twelve tribes.

Rehoboam remained king, but only over his tribe of Judah and the tribe of Benjamin.
What was once a proud and prosperous nation was now a divided kingdom:
Israel to the north and Judah to the south.

This internal strife and national division has all the makings of an epic movie.
From the Lower Story point of view of this movie is as old as time itself.
A king mistreats his people.  
courageous revolutionary leads a rebellion against the king.
A struggle for power ensues, and eventually the kingdom is divided.
And as you dig deeper into this Lower Story, you learn that Rehoboam could have avoided the rebellion if only he would have listened to the right people.

Remember when Jeroboam came and asked for kinder treatment of Israel's citizens?
As it turned out, Rehoboam first consulted some of his father's trusted advisers,
and they told him that if he lightened up, his citizens would be loyal to him forever.

But instead of taking their advice, he took the advice of some younger friends  —
who told him to rule with an even harsher hand than his father .

Who could blame Jeroboam, then, for leading a rebellion and setting up his own kingdom to the north? And who could blame Rehoboam for mounting his troops and readying them for battle to regain the territory from Jeroboam's rebel forces?  You can almost hear the music build and see the horses galloping north, soldiers grabbing the reins with one hand and waving their swords.

Except, there was no battle, and to understand why, we need to look at this scene from another point of view: God’s point of view, the Upper Story view,
or in other words, God’s salvation story
God’s grand plan to restore us to one another,
and to restore each of us to a relationship with Him, based on love and obedience.

Lower Story logic tells us that Rehoboam should have launched a massive battle against the northern rebel kingdom, and he was just about to do that when God stepped in and offered a glimpse into his plan with these four simple words:  "This is my doing,"[5]

It was as if he was saying, "I was behind this from the beginning. I knew you would heed the advice of your yes-men instead of your father's wise elders.  I knew Jeroboam would rebel against you.  And I knew you would do everything in your power to bring your divided kingdom back together.

But it's in my power, not yours. So go home. Your role in this movie is just about over."
If God indeed did this if he orchestrated it all along
the question remains, why?

For the answer, we turn to the theme of this movie.
By the time we reach the end of a well-written and well-directed movie, we discover it contains a theme or message.

On the Lower Story level, the theme of this movie is obvious: leaders who treat their followers poorly will face rebellion.  Rehoboam is clearly the bad guy; Jeroboam is the hero.
This is a great message, one that God would surely support, but it isn't his message in this story.

The Upper Story theme has little to do with tyrannical rulers or rebellion.
It really has little to do with the main characters or even the setting and plot.

If you want to sum up God's message in a short phrase, it is this: "I keep my word.
He does what he says he will do because he longs for us to live in a right relationship with one another, and with Him,
to experience true peace, the peace only God can give

As we learned in previous parts of this Story,
God made prom­ises or covenants with his people.
He promised Abraham he would make a great nation from his offspring,
despite the fact that Abra­ham and his wife were in their advanced years.

God kept that promise.

He promised Moses that if the people of Israel kept the commandments he gave them, he would bless them, but if they turned away from these laws, he would discipline them.
He kept that promise.

He made a third promise – this time to David — one that built on the promises to Abraham and Moses to make Israel a great nation, but he took it one step further with David.
He promised David that his tribe — the tribe of Judah — would be established for­ever.

Because in God's plan to save us would come from the line of David, through Jesus, the Messiah, and he will reign forever as King of all kings.
Because of David's great love for God, the perfect community God is building will be traced back to David's tribe.

In the Lower Story it appears that Rehoboam is being disciplined for his actions
and that the southern tribe of Judah is the one that has been weakened and will eventually fade away.  He goes to the wrong people, from whom he gets the wrong advice,
so that he ends up making what appears to be the wrong decision regarding Israel.

The winner here clearly is Jeroboam and the ten northern tribes,
except for one small problem.

If the northern tribes prevail and Judah perishes, God is made out to be a liar.
Who could ever trust a God who can't keep his promises?

Have you ever heard a song by U2 called "With or Without You"?
It comes to mind when I read this story of Jeroboam and Rehoboam
because it summarizes how God is going to establish his perfect community –
with or without their cooperation.
Both men eventually turned their backs on God, but it didn't matter.
His plan to save us from our sin,
was going to come to fruition through Judah — with or without the cooperation of Jeroboam and Rehoboam.

In the New Testament part of God's story,
God gives us another promise when he declares,
"I will build my church."[6]

He doesn't say, "I might build my church," or "I hope to build my church,"
He declares a nonnegotiable truth.
He will build a church that will demonstrate the good news
that everyone in the human family— Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor, young and old — all people are included and welcome in this church, in this community in Christ,  God is forming.

And he will do it with or without us.

Nothing harms the church more than when we forget who we are and reflect the wrong image
of who God is.

When we forget our story – God’s history with us
when we forget God’s patience and loving-kindness, 
we tend to show unkindness to others.

When we forget God’s righteousness,
we tend to operate dishonestly or let our anger get the best of us.

These actions harm the church, but they don't stop it.
God will build his church. With or without us.

But wouldn't you prefer that he did it with us?
What a privilege God gives us to reflect his image to others.
Imagine knowing -- that the way you live today may result in someone seeing a glimpse of God, and wanting to know God’s peace,
and being drawn to find true life – and peace in him.

We have opportunities every day to live obediently so that every­one around us can see who God is. If I choose to disobey and live according to my own selfish interests, God will allow it.

God did not force Rehoboam to "do the right thing" and treat his subjects better.
Instead, God used Rehoboam to help fulfill a promise God had made to David.

Sometimes we choose to disobey.

Sometimes our actions bring harm to others.

But God’s plans are larger than our sins.
God’s will is greater than our mistakes.

If you are ever tempted to get down on yourself, 
if you feel like giving up hope, because you keep making the same mistakes over and over again,
don’t give up.

God’s can use even our biggest weaknesses, even our biggest failure,
to open our eyes
and to fulfill His promise,
to restore us back into a right relationship with one another and with Him.   Amen

This sermon is indebted to the writing of Pastor Randy Frazee (most of which is his)

[1] George Santayana in The Life of Reason, 1905
[5] 1 Kings 12:24 (The Story p. 195)
[6] Matthew 16:18